“I don’t know what to do!” wailed fellow hiker Linda, her legs visibly trembling.
It’s probably fair to say that none of our five-strong group did. Not often do you find yourself stranded at the top of one of South Africa’s Manoutsa cliffs having just witnessed your guide nearly plunge to a particularly unpleasant (not to mention messy) death!
Well, I wanted adventure – and I got it! Feeling my nine-to-five London life lacked excitement, I joined a voluntary wildlife conservation project held at a private game reserve in Hoedspruit, South Africa. Besides lectures and practical work in the bush, there were also a number of optional excursions to choose from, including the hike. A relaxing ramble through the lush, shady woodland of the escarpment: what better way to spend a gloriously sunny Sunday?
We set off along the trail, the trees’ canopy painting dappled patterns on the sun-baked ground. Better still, it provided welcome relief from the scorching afternoon rays.
There were gasps of wonder when the trail passed through a cool, shady clearing, a nature-lover’s paradise complete with stunning flora and a towering, cascading waterfall as its focal point.
The lure of the cool water proved irresistible- the perfect antidote to soothe sizzling, sweat-soaked skin.
Equipped with refreshments, you could laze by the edge of the pools for hours, listening to the tumbling water and watching fiery-red dragonflies dance over the glistening surface.
Those interludes in our trek were blissful. But the hike itself?
Let’s say that, compared with the UK, encountering safety regulations in South Africa seems about as likely as encountering a polar bear in the bush. In theory, the freedom this allows is fantastic, You’re not stifled by over-zealous restrictions; you can make your own decisions about the risks you’re prepared to take. Providing you’re aware of the risks involved, that is.
Advice from experience: should you ever consider hiking through this terrain, don’t take a cumbersome rucksack that swings you off balance when negotiating awkward rocks next to sheer drops. Don’t wear sandals, even walking sandals; feet tend to slip in them, sending adrenalin levels rocketing when you consider the height from which you might be slipping. And most importantly, beware of the ladders.
It took about two minutes to ascertain that this was more than just a simple stroll through the woods. For starters, it involved climbing some fairly sizeable rocks. A couple of the shorter girls had to ask for a shove from behind, as they couldn’t quite manage to heave themselves up.
“We’re not going in there?” I asked as we stood gazing down at the tiny, tunnel-like entrance to a pitch-black cave. Yes, that was exactly where we were going. One by one we wriggled down into the cool darkness, our hands sinking into coarse sand. I prayed I wouldn’t slam down my hand on any of the biting or stinging things – spiders, snakes, scorpions – that might be lurking in the blackness. In fact, they undoubtedly were lurking in the blackness.
After shuffling down steep, sandy declines, barely able to see a thing — note to potential visitors: take the most powerful torch you can find, and if you have a head-torch, all the better — we at last emerged blinking and temporarily blinded into dazzling sunlight, caked in a mixture of sweat and sand.
Surely the hardest part was over now. At least, that’s what I thought.
We arrived at the top of a cliff. Remember the flimsy ladders in the Indiana Jones movies? The ones that look as though they’re held together with bits of string and couldn’t support the weight of an anorexic butterfly?
“Just follow me!” exclaimed our chirpy guide, Marjolein, casually stepping on to the rungs. She clearly wasn’t a novice.
Suddenly one side of the ladder fell way from the cliff, sending her swinging outwards, right arm flailing. We froze. Blood drained from our faces. That horrible sinking sensation – a sickening dread – assailed our stomachs.
Relief flooded through us as she recovered her balance. Then, to our horror, promptly lost it again, swinging out farther this time.
The whole ladder would rip away from the rock. She’d plummet to the ground. She might even die! It’d be a stunningly beautiful place to die, with dramatic views of the eerie, mist-shrouded Drakensberg mountains in one direction and the Lowveld’s wildlife-teeming, sun-soaked bush savannah stretching for miles in the other. But she couldn’t die, she couldn’t!
Our minds raced uncontrollably as interminable seconds crawled past. Eventually – seemingly miraculously – she recovered her balance for the second time.
“Marjolein!” I exclaimed. “We thought you were a goner!”
“I’m fine,” she laughed, brushing down her clothes and seeming largely unfazed by her near-death experience.
Retracing our route before nightfall wasn’t an option. Unless we wanted to sit at the top of the cliff until morning – and we were far from equipped to do that – there was no choice but to tackle the Ladder of Potential Doom.
We watched with baited breath as Marjolein stepped on to the rungs again, this time putting her full body weight on the unattached side to hold it against the cliff. She reached the bottom. “Okay, next one!” she called. “Take it slowly and you’ll be fine.”
“Are you mad? Do you want to die?!” screamed part of my mind. “Are you mad? Do you want to look like a complete wimp?” retorted the other. The same battle appeared to rage in the minds of all of us. We didn’t know what to do.
But then, if Marjolein had managed to reach the ground in one piece…
One by one we gingerly made our way down, carefully stepping over the missing rungs. At last, we gathered in a group at the bottom. We’d made it! And with no casualties.
It wasn’t until completing the hike that we discovered a crucial factor: this once-maintained route hadn’t been maintained for quite some time.
But, prospective visitors, don’t let that deter you. The hike is certainly challenging but it is great fun. Repairs were due to start imminently and, it should also be pointed out, if you know what to expect and are appropriately attired, the risks are greatly reduced.
And if the very worst scenario should come to pass? Well, itwould be a stunningly beautiful place to die…
If You Go
General information on Manoutsa trails
Guide to Hoedspruit
South Africa Tourism
Stuck in a rut and desperately seeking both challenge and adventure, Jo Pitches ditched her 9-to-5 life in Croydon, Surrey and headed off to join a wildlife conservation course at a private game reserve in South Africa. Next on her agenda is a three-week tour of Borneo – no doubt providing plenty more tales to tell!